The Ice Storm Cometh

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The hot art-house ticket this summer is for one cool movie. Atanarjuat — The Fast Runner has won festival prizes and critics' raves, and not only because it's the first fiction feature made about the Canadian Inuit by an Inuit director, Zacharias Kunuk, and writer, the late Paul Apak Angilirq. If that were the film's only distinction, it might get shown in natural-history museums. Atanarjuat will soon be in 60 U.S. cities because it is a ripping yarn and a spectacularly new and odd vision.

In the Arctic village of Igloolik live two brothers: Amaqjuaq (Pakkak Innukshuk), the strong one, and Atanarjuat (Natar Ungalaaq), the speedy one. Theirs might be a frostily idyllic existence, except that an evil spirit has infected Igloolik's ruling family. The family's young bull, Oki (Peter-Henry Arnatsiaq), has Sonny Corleone's temper and Fredo's sense of grudging inferiority. Oki's sister Puja (Lucy Tulugarjuk) is the local vamp, an Arctic Circle Circe. She gets under the sealskins of our brother heroes and stirs up a steaming pot of mischief.

Shot on digital video, Atanarjuat has the clarity of a dream. The northern sky is so bright it could give a viewer sunburn. In the film's long chase scene, when Atanarjuat runs naked across the snowy wastes to escape Oki, cinematographer Norman Cohn catches the majestic subtleties of Arctic dawn, noon and sunset.

Beneath this icy surface of exotic ethnography and glistening photography bubbles an elemental tale of sex and violence. The blood feud leads to patricide, a rape, and a stabbing through a tepee cover (Polonius-like). Plus this is the film that answers the question What do Inuit women wear under their parkas? You will find out during a furtive, furious love scene lighted by licks of fire. Of course, the pace of Kunuk's epic is less Vin Diesel fueled than dogsled deliberate. Which is only to say that Atanarjuat is not like every other film this summer. It's not like any other film, period.